Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things…
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and we have come to pay him homage.
Good morning, friends, and Happy New Year. I’m delighted to be back at Ascension & St. Agnes–the last time I was here for worship was when we officially welcomed Father Peridans as your rector nearly 18 months ago. How much has changed in such a short time. A special word of greeting to those who have joined Ascension & St. Agnes since then, to the two to be confirmed today, and to our guests.
The 19th century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson used to greet friends he’d not seen in a while with this question: “What has become clear to you since last we met?” Emerson’s question that came to mind as I was preparing to speak with you today. I wonder what has become clear to you since last we worshipped together in this place. For those of you who are new to Ascension & St. Agnes or are visiting today, you could ask yourself the same question in regards to the past year. What has become clear to you as we begin 2019? What are you learning? How have you growing spiritually, as individuals and a community? How are you experiencing the grace of God, or the longing for God? Thinking of the wise ones trekking halfway across the world in search of a child born to be king, what are you searching for now?
I’ve just returned from time over the holidays with our extended family and a close circle of friends. Because we live far from each other, such gatherings are rare and all the more potent for reflection on what is changing in our lives and what over time, remains the same.
I was acutely aware this time of the passage of time and of my place in the life cycle of our family and friends. Our parents’ generation is growing frail and some have crossed over the mysterious border of death into greater life. My husband and I are anticipating the birth of our first grandchild. All around us there is a rising cadre of younger adults, including our children, who are finding their way in the world, their sights increasingly set beyond what I can see. Several of our family and friends, quite suddenly, are facing the hardest news of life: physical illness, mental illness, even the untimely death of a child.
Thus, some of the things that have become clear for me since we last met is that time is a mystery, that the aging process is humbling, and, in the words of Sister Joan Chittister, “Life is short, and we don’t have time to waste time. Some things are significant in life and some things are not. We all have to ask ourselves what time it is in our lives. We each have to begin to consider the eternal weight of what we are spending our life doing.” (Joan Chittister, The Rule of St. Benedict: Insight for the Ages (New York: Crossroad Press, 2004), p.23)
I’m also learning more about the patterns that shape our lives. Once habits and patterns are established, they set us on a course that gets increasingly difficult to change. There is a paradox here: we are the ones to establish many of the patterns and habits that give shape our lives, but once they are in place, like the solar system, they have a gravitational force field that is hard to resist.
I daresay that most of us in here carry a smartphone with us almost everywhere we go. It’s a relatively new habit, and pattern, for us. There are all sorts of studies to suggest what some of us already know: we check our phones, habitually, quite a bit throughout the day–as many as 45, 80, even 140 times a day. For many, our phones are the first thing we look at as we wake up and the last thing we see when we go to sleep.
How did that happen? When did it happen? Is that a habit, or pattern, that we’re comfortable with? As I was considering some of the habits of my life this fall, I decided that I didn’t want to look at my phone until I had turned my gaze, in some intentional way, toward Jesus. I was humbled by how focused my sights had become on a screen.
Over time, habits and patterns manifest themselves as trends setting a course, a direction of where our lives are headed. Once a trend gets established and picks up a bit of momentum, it takes a much higher level of effort and intention to slow or reverse it. If the trend is one that pleases us, that’s fine, and the question before us is how to keep the positive momentum going. But if it’s a trend that concerns us, it’s crucial that we recognize that simply wanting to change, hoping for change, or even working to change it without sufficient energy and intention won’t be enough to slow it down or reverse course. Of course, there are some trends we cannot reverse–such as the aging process, or the course of disease with no cure, or the power of two people falling in love–and then the choice for us becomes how will we live as the trend, like a powerful tide, carries us along.
All this to say it’s a good idea to take stock of our patterns and habits from time to time, which is the impulse behind New Year’s resolutions. In the life of faith, this kind of examination is essential if we are to grow spiritually, and it often results in the adoption of spiritual practices that help orient us toward Christ and open us to his guiding presence. This is using the power of patterns and habits to good end, whenever we identify in advance what we do in the course of a day or week, regardless of how we feel in a given moment. In this way, our habits can help us grow more like Christ. To quote Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, “if we are to live and love like Jesus, we need spiritual practices that guide us along on the Way of Love.” (See the Way of Love for a detailed description of seven practices for a Jesus focused life.)
In the Christian calendar, today is both the last day of the Christmas season and the first in the grace-filled season of Epiphany. Father Peridans reminds us that the word “epiphany” means “manifestation,” to make visible. It can also mean revelation, when something that was hidden or unknown becomes clear to us, either suddenly or over time. What the season of Epiphany celebrates is the manifestation of Christ for who he is, in his essence, and who he is for us.
Of late, I’ve been imagining the epiphanies of Christ and other moments of insight as “holy interruptions” that invite us to stop, take stock, and sometimes, to choose a new path of grace. I first came across the phrase “holy interruption,” in the writings of Tony Morgan, author of a book entitled The Unstuck Church and leader of a consulting organization known as The Unstuck Church Group.
Last spring, I invited Tony to address the clergy of our diocese. His premise is simply that churches, like people, have a natural life cycle. Over the course of a church’s life cycle, certain habits and patterns that once served the church well, if left unexamined, will eventually cause the church to get stuck. This is because health, in churches as in individuals, requires adaptation and change. With stuckness eventually comes decline. If decline isn’t somehow interrupted, it in itself becomes a trend increasingly difficult to reverse.
It’s a sobering line of reasoning, but Tony is a man of faith, a follower of Jesus. He believes that God has both the power and the desire to break into our lives, our world, and our churches with new possibilities–with a holy interruption. This is not our doing; it is the grace of God coming to us in a tangible way that changes us. Grace changes our perspective and understanding and guides us onto a path of greater life.
In the Scripture readings for today, we’re given two examples of how we might experience a holy interruption. In the passage we heard from St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul alludes to the greatest holy interruption of his life:
Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.
The gift of God’s grace that he’s referring to is the time when Christ appeared to him while he was traveling on the road to Damascus, a manifestation so powerful and life changing that it knocked him to the ground and blinded him for three days. This was a holy interruption of enormous consequence, transforming him from one who persecuted Christians to the single greatest missionary of Jesus’ love of all time. It was a grace that he didn’t deserve, and he knew it, but it came to him anyway. Because it came to him as a gift, because Christ came to him, the least worthy, he had no doubt that all were worthy in God’s eyes, that Christ’s coming was for all people.
Our holy interruptions can be like that–a dramatic grace that disrupts everything and sets us on a new path. It generally doesn’t feel like a gift at first, for the disruption is akin to a lightning bolt. It can feel like hitting bottom; it can come to us through the worst possible news. I’m not sure if our most dramatic interruptions are, in fact, of God, or if God uses cataclysmic interruptions for graceful purposes.
What makes an interruption holy is the experience of grace, of Christ present with us, coming to us wherever we are and walking alongside us as we make our way in a completely new reality that we did not choose. People often speak of these interruptions with gratitude, not necessarily for the events themselves, but for the ways they were changed by them, or sustained through them, by the love and abiding presence of God. For Christians that presence comes to us, is revealed to us, as Jesus.
Another way we can experience a holy interruption is more gradual–a nudge, an invitation, a star beckoning in our metaphorical sky. There isn’t as much drama with this kind of interruption in the beginning, but it can have dramatic results over time. For like the wise ones of old following a star, we’re summoned somehow, called on a journey of unknown destination. The interruption may be hardly noticeable at first, in that it begins with one step, and then another, and another, until we realize that there is no turning back.
There’s a story in the Gospel of John about a time when Jesus’ popularity plummeted and many people who had been among his followers walked away. Quite understandably, Jesus turns to his closest disciples and asks, “What about you? Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter, speaking for the Twelve, replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words to eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69) He had forever interrupted their lives, one step at a time, and they knew, no matter what, there was no turning back.
I leave you on the threshold of Epiphany with the gentle admonition to be faithful in worship, for this is a season not to miss church. Every Sunday for the next eight weeks, you will hear uplifting, inspiring stories of holy interruptions, inviting you to consider how Christ is interrupting your life. I urge you to pay attention, however the interruptions come, be they dramatic or subtle, spoken through the voice of friend or stranger or in your dreams. Ask yourself whenever you are interrupted, does this feel holy? Then, in your own way, take one step, and then another, and another, following the star, walking the path that Jesus has set before you.